Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Jury ponders NKU prof's suit

Defamation case resumes today

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - A federal jury will resume deliberations today to determine whether a Northern Kentucky professor was defamed by Foxnews.com in an article it published about the professor's comments at a 2001 student forum.

The case went to jurors about 4 p.m. Monday, and by 7:45 p.m. they had not reached a verdict. So U.S. District Judge David Bunning sent them home for the evening. They will return at 9:45 a.m. today.

During a week-long trial, Northern Kentucky University professor Clinton Hewan has tried to prove the article was substantially untrue and damaging to him. The piece, published May 2, 2001, on the news network's Web site, focused on the controversy over Hewan's remarks at a forum called to discuss racial unrest in Cincinnati. The forum took place two weeks after the fatal shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed African-American man, by Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach.

A reporter for NKU's campus newspaper, The Northerner, was present at the forum and quoted Hewan as saying, "I do not advocate any violence as an initiate. But in the case of willful murder, the family (of Timothy Thomas) should go out and get that policeman." According to The Northerner, Hewan also said the family should "quietly stalk that SOB and take him out" in order to stand up for themselves.

A furor ensued, with NKU president James Votruba issuing a stern rebuke to the professor. Six days into the controversy, which was heavily covered by Cincinnati media, Fox News published its article, headlined "Prof's Kill-a-cop Comments Prompt Outcry at College Near Cincinnati." The first paragraph said the professor's "call for deadly vigilante justice" against Roach had sent shock waves across NKU.

As a result, Hewan received death threats, had to seek protection and became a pariah on campus, he claimed in his lawsuit.

The article mentioned in the fourth paragraph Hewan's claim that his remarks were taken out of context by The Northerner. Later paragraphs elaborated upon that claim and even quoted Votruba as saying Hewan was a "good man and a good teacher" with a sometimes confrontational style.

Hewan's attorneys, Marc Mezibov and Chris Jenkins, focused on the beginning of the article. The first paragraph was highlighted in boldface, as is the custom of Foxnews.com, and it set the tone, Mezibov said. "The message, the thought, the essence, the thrust of what that Fox News article said is that Clinton Hewan advocated the vigilante murder of a cop," Mezibov told the jury.

That simply wasn't true, NKU students testified last week. Four who were present at the forum said they knew Hewan was speaking hypothetically about how to get city leaders to respond to police brutality. Fox News mounted a vigorous defense, arguing that Hewan indeed made the remarks in question, so the article wasn't untrue.

The last witness to appear on Monday was Gail Wells, dean of NKU's College of Arts & Sciences. After The Northerner article appeared, Wells was asked by NKU's president to speak with Hewan about his remarks. He didn't deny them, she testified. In fact, he said he had chosen his words carefully and wished The Northerner had printed more of them, Wells said.

In that sense, the article was "not totally in context," Wells wrote in notes she scribbled during her conversation with Hewan. Still, "the (Northerner) reporter has no need to apologize," her notes recorded Hewan as saying.


E-mail kgutierrez@enquirer.com

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